Something Special or a Marketing Gag?
Last year I saw the new Jack Daniel's No 27 Gold for the first time. The label said Tennessee whiskey, but the additional information on the label made me wonder. It said in big letters: 'Double Barreled, Extra Matured in Maple Barrels'.
What? A finish? I thought the maturation in fresh American white oak casks was mandatory in the USA. So how could this whiskey have been extra matured in maple? Is there a special law for Tennessee whiskey?
A while ago the new Prichard's Tennessee whiskey was released. I wondered why the label didn't mention the charcoal mellowing procedure, which I thought was the unique selling point of Tennessee whiskey.
Let's dig deeper into the matter. What is a Tennessee whiskey? According to the common perception, Tennessee whiskey is a Bourbon that has additionally been filtered through a charcoal layer. That's how it has been marketed by the producers, especially Jack Daniel, for decades.
However, the rules and regulations of the 1964 Bourbon Act, which apply to all Bourbons in the USA, also applied to Tennessee whiskey. There was no Tennessee Whiskey Act. If you keep to the rules of the Bourbon Act, you may call your product Bourbon. If you keep to slightly stricter rules, you may call it Straight Bourbon. If your distillery is in the state of Kentucky, you may call your whiskey Kentucky Straight Bourbon.
Does that mean that Tennessee whiskey is a 'better Bourbon' because of the additional production step of charcoal filtering? No, it doesn't. Nobody prohibits the rest of the US Bourbon industry from also filtering their product, and indeed this happens. However, it's rarely stated on the label because there's no universal agreement that filtration makes a whiskey better. For some years now Scottish producers have been successful with the claim that natural, non chill filtered Scotch whisky tastes better than filtered whisky. We recently carried out a big blind trial with more than 1,000 samples and more than 100 connoisseurs and found only very small differences in quality between chill filtered and non chill filtered whiskies.
Bourbon is not Scotch, and the results of the study may not apply to Bourbon, but distinguishing Tennessee whiskey from Bourbons from other states on the basis of filtration seems arbitrary and solely owed to marketing. The motivation behind this seems to be: "If you can't be leading in a category, open up your own category where you can be the leader."
The definition of the Tennessee category got really out of hand in 2013 when the lobbying market players from Tennessee persuaded Governor Bill Haslam to sign a local bill that stated that Tennessee whiskey must be charcoal filtered. After all, this had been the tradition for more than 150 years. However, the reopened Prichard distillery invoked written documents dating from even earlier proving that they had not filtered back then. So an exception was written into the law.
Because of this exception other market players, among them some new microdistilleries, then claimed that this arbitrary prescription of a production process violated their constitutional freedoms. The matter will probably end up before the highest courts.
But what about the extra maturation in maple casks? Thinking about these non-oak casks, the Jim Beam Distiller's Masterpiece comes to mind. It's a Kentucky Straight Bourbon that has been finished in Spanish Pedro Ximenez Sherry casks. If finishes are possible in Kentucky and Tennessee, is the notion that Bourbon must only be matured in American white oak wrong?
Indeed, the Bourbon Act only states that Bourbon must be matured in fresh American white oak casks for at least two years. It doesn't say what you can or should do with the whiskey afterwards. Here the creativity of the whiskey producers comes into play.
Are such legal restrictions good or bad? Well, it's a balance between traditions and flavour innovations. If you're too restrictive you won't convince new customers of your product, especially not connoisseurs looking for variety and young people looking for fancy drinks. However, if you're too innovative, long-time customers don't recognise your brand anymore and turn to competitors. Take the cigarette brand Camel for example. Once among the market leaders, their advertisements featured a smoking globetrotter. When the brand started to use a plush camel, the customers preferred to ride a mustang in Marlboro Country. It only takes a few wrong decisions and little time to seriously damage a brand. Today Camel has little significance on the cigarette market.
Jack Daniel is treading a new path with their No 27 Gold. On one hand they keep the traditional charcoal mellowing procedure; on the other they use unusually sweet maple casks, which may appeal to new customers. We'll see how customers react to this innovation. At the moment the No 27 is only sold in few target markets, showing that they're still probing whether that's the right way.
Horst Luening, January 2016